The poetry that sustains me is when I feel that, for a minute, the clouds have parted and I’ve seen ecstasy or something.
by Rita Dove
One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.
There are several well-reasoned analysis of this poem which say that it is about parenting and cautioning children about the dangers of strangers, with Hades in his carriage from the underworld a pretty grandiose stranger. But that is not what this poem speaks to me. I find in her words an artist’s admission to the lure of poetry and writing. The splendid terribleness of having to let go and fall and fall into your own pit of your imagination. And then find in that falling the beautiful truth of whatever it is that you are going to write about and the courage to share.
The goddess Persephone is a crazy metaphor to begin with in shaping this sonnet. She is the goddess of the plant kingdom and prosperity of the harvest. Yet she is kidnapped by Hades into the underworld to be his wife, bringing famine to the world as nothing can grow where no light reaches. There is not a true poet alive who feels they have any choice but to write even if they starve in some ways for it. Their purpose in life has been kidnapped in search of the right words, to write words, to impart the intangible in a way that they themselves and possibly their readers can grasp ecstasy for a moment.
Artists, teachers, clergy and everyone else who peddles in matters of the soul eventually have to give themselves wholly over to the pursuit of their vocation, even if it means entrapment in a place that does not always serve their best interest. It is not a choice that can be made halfway. You either commit and succeed or are reticent and fail. Hades’ Pitch, the sonnet below, I think is a continuation of this admission, that in finding her artistic voice, she had to accept the lure of fire and darkness that comes with commitment, passion and desire. A poet experiences unpleasantness, the process of writing comes easy to some, but for most is hard work and not everything they are going to write is going to be about subjects that want to visit or revisit. Great art sometimes is about scars or leaves them in its creation. Fisherman have callouses on their hands. Writers have callouses on their reputations, for half the critics will evaluate you for your best work and the other half judge you only by your worst.
I love the quote from Audre Lorde below and believe it to be true of all great artists like Rita Dove as well; “that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.” What are you teaching or creating today to continue being?
I am Black, Woman, and Poet—fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is a part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’
Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.
Last spring, under a National Endowment to the Arts Grand, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.
At the City University of New York, I teach young people.
If I could just touch your ankle, he whispers, there
on the inside, above the bone—leans closer,
breath of lime and pepper—I know I could
make love to you. She considers
this, secretly thrilled, though she wasn’t quite
sure what he meant. He was good
with words, words that went straight to the liver.
Was she falling for him out of sheer boredom—
cooped up in this anything-but-humble dive, stone
gargoyles leering and brocade drapes licked with fire?
Her ankle burns where he described it. She sighs
just as her mother above ground stumbles, is caught
by the fetlock—bereft in an instant—
while the Great Man drives home his desire.